Sunday, November 05, 2006

OPINION: Good & Bad News re Hilaly

I have some good news and some bad news in relation to Sheik Hilaly.

The bad news is that, thanks to an aggressive media and political campaign, Hilaly will probably survive as Senior Imam of the mosque in Lakemba managed by the Lebanese Moslems Association (LMA).

The good news isn't really news at all. Hilaly's status in the wider Muslim community is the same as it was when he first arrived in Australia . For most Muslims, Hilaly barely registers on their spiritual radar.

3 out of 4 Muslims don't speak Arabic. The vast majority of Muslims communicate in English. When I want to communicate with Muslims in Sydney , I don't go to the Arabic press or speak on Arabic radio. I write for this newspaper. More Muslims in Sydney read this newspaper than any foreign language paper.

Sheik Hilaly just isn't capable of writing in this newspaper without an interpreter. He isn't capable of communicating with most Muslims without an interpreter. Sydney has over 150 mosques and well over 200 imams. Quite a few (though sadly not most) imams speak English. The rest are largely irrelevant outside their small congregations.

Most Muslims, like most Christians, hardly go to the mosque more than once or twice a year. Some go every Friday for the congregational prayer. The LMA mosque where Hilaly preaches can hardly fit 5,000 people. Auburn Gallipoli Mosque fits around 6,000 people.

This Sunday, Sydney 's newest mosque in Bonnyrigg will be officially opened. Citizenship Minister Andrew Robb will be there for the event. So will be the most influential imam in Australia .

Am I talking about Hilaly? Nope. Australia 's most influential imam is a man who presides over the vast majority of imams in Australia . Most mosques are managed by Turks. Most Turkish mosques employ Turkish imams. Virtually all Turkish imams are trained in Turkey under the Presidency of Religious Affairs, a body run by the Turkish government.

So when the head of the Turkish Presidency of Religious Affairs, Dr Ali Bardakoglu, visits Australia over the next week or so, it should be an event the media will notice. It certainly is being noticed at most Australian mosques.

I rarely if attend Friday congregational prayers at the LMA mosque in Lakemba. The sermon is always in Arabic. Very rarely is any translation done. I learn nothing at the sermon. Frequently, sermons are known to take upto 2 hours. I have work to do. Lakemba is too far for me to travel to. I'd rather pray where the sermon is in English and I can budget for time on a busy Friday afternoon.

Hilaly may proclaim himself to be the Mufti. But to most Australian Muslims, he is at best irrelevant and at worst a complete embarrassment. Non-Lebanese Sydney Muslims and Muslims from other cities and states regard Hilaly as a Lebanese problem. Disputes between Hilaly and his opponents in the Lebanese community are seen as a Lebanese turf war.

So when Australian-Lebanese GP Dr Jamal Rifi predicted Hilaly's refusal to resign would lead to rioting in the streets, the e-mail lists were hot. No, not hot with plans for which streets to burn and which windows to smash. Instead, Muslims were cracking jokes about how the only riot would probably be one in Dr Rifi's backyard!

Thankfully, Hilaly called off any protest or rally. He went on SBS Arabic Radio and on the Voice of Islam (VOI) Radio to speak. VOI has only one English-language program which runs for half an hour. The rest is in Arabic. Sheik Hilaly's call wouldn't have been understood by most Muslims, and few would have been interested in attending a rally in which virtually all speeches would be in Arabic.

Perhaps it is a good thing Hilaly refuses to learn English. If his views on Jews and women and cats were anything to go by, he deserves the status of irrelevance he has with Australia 's overwhelmingly non-Arabic-speaking Muslim communities.

An edited version of this article was first published in the Daily Telegraph on Saturday 4 November 2006.

Words © 2006 Irfan Yusuf

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